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Help Monitor the Red Crossbill Invasion

Birders in the eastern part of the continent are calling this the best winter finch winter in decades, perhaps even more amazing in that it's not even officially winter yet! Beautiful and charismatic, Evening Grosbeaks are the centerpiece of this irruption, and we recently encouraged birders seeing "Evebeaks" to be sure to get those sightings reported to eBird so that we can watch the invasion happen in real-time.

Second only to the grosbeaks in inducing excitement with their arrival are the crossbills, both White-winged and Red, that have been sweeping across the east in incredible numbers.  Much has been made of the fact that within the enigmatic species known as Red Crossbill may lie up to 10 cryptic, but full in their own right, species differentiated from one another by bill size, food preferences, and, especially, flight calls.  Indeed, many of these "types" can be confidently identified by birders paying attention to those calls.   

This season has seen reports of multiple types of Red Crossbills wherever the species has been reported.  North American Birds editor Ned Brinkley, who is based on the eastern shore of Virginia, reports that both Type 3 and Type 10 crossbills have turned up in that state this fall, neither of which have ever been recorded in the past.  

Red-Crossbill CF

photo by Corey Finger – Long Island, NY, 11/2012

Now, asking birders to note the high-pitched mutterings of birds passing overhead may sound like a sure-fire way of deadening the joy in seeing these infrequent winter visitors, but an enormous amount of information can be acquired during these finch years from regular birders noting the sounds they hear from the bird they're seeing.  Even something as simple as obtaining a recording can be a big deal, and these days most cell phones are capable of picking one up one of sufficient quality to make the ID.      

Matt Young at Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been doing great work trying to suss out the differences in Red Crossbill populations.  Earlier this fall, Matt wrote a primer posted to the eBird website laying out the differences with several incredibly useful audio examples.  Matt also encourages birders who have recorded crossbills but need a hand identifying them to type to send those recordings to him at may6 AT cornell DOT edu. 

Additionally, the ABA's journal of ornithological record, North American Birds, has been on the forefront of the crossbill ID revolution with several articles, by none other than Matt Young, focusing on status, distribution, and identification of the various types. Those posts, now suddenly exceedingly relevant, are now hosted free on the ABA site.  

Status and distribution of Type 1 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra): an Appalachian Call Type? – M Young, et al  

Type 5 Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) in New York: first confirmation east of the Rocky Mountains – M Young

New evidence in support of a distinctive Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) Type in Newfoundland – M Young, et al

And although it scarcely needs to be said anymore, be sure to get those sightings entered into eBird.  Our knowledge of irruptive boreal finches is woefully incompletely, but phenomena like these flights offer opportunities to make inroads into our gaps in knowledge.  

Thanks, and enjoy the finches this winter!

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • Alan Wormington


    I’ve noted that you have twice suggested that people enter their crossbill sightings into E-bird. I would also suggest that the same data be sent to your local compiler, since it is this person who will archive the information in addition to passing on the data to be ultimately published in local journals and also North American Birds.

  • I guess this is a generational issue, because while I appreciate the work done by various reviewers, I see making sure the sightings are entered in eBird to be the most important thing.  Once included in that database, various regional and state reviewers can access those sightings fairly easily (eBird actually makes these available quarterly in a spreadsheet) and the impetus would be on them to do so.

    So, by all means, I would encourage birders finding winter finches to let all the relevant compilers know, but I would also encourage those compilers to use eBird judiciously to make sure the entire scope of the irruption is properly documented. 

  • Alan Wormington

    Nate, I *am* a regional compiler (Point Pelee) but generally find E-bird data to be close to useless since nothing is in context — no first and last dates for a bird, overlapping entries (impossible to sort out), exact locations usually missing, no plumage details, original finders unknown, etc. etc. When Cave Swallow, for example, is entered for multiple dates, is it multiple birds or just the same bird hanging around for several days? Absolutely impossible to figure out if you are looking at an e-bird spreadsheet!

    The best data I get is always from those who send me their data directly in an understandable format, with commentary on each record so that the context of the record can be fully understood.

  • Alan Wormington

    So yes, sending sightings directly to a local compiler is an extremely valuable exercise for all involved. I routinely do just that when travelling not only within Ontario, but also to other locations such as Texas, etc.

  • Tim in Albion

    There’s a big difference between “not perfect” and “close to useless.”

  • Alan Wormington

    Tim, obviously you are not a local compiler trying to use the data.

  • Aaron Boone

    the link to the Newfoundland Type article is broken…I wouldn’t mind having a copy of this PDF

  • Yeah, we've had some trouble with that one.  You're right, it's still busted.  I'll comment again when it's fixed. 

  • Should be good to go now. 

  • Patricia Wood

    It occurs to me that it’s not so much generational as locational, if that’s allowed as a word! In Maryland, the birders do a lot of eBirding, and also work with the compiler, who at times gets onto the state elist (Mdbirding) to remind people about the records needed for some sighting. Between the discussion list and ebird, plus everyone who birds a lot being well known to the compiler, the data probably gets to him better than it would at Point Pelee, which I’m guessing gets a lot of reports from people who don’t bird there regularly. Our Md ebird reports seem pretty detailed and pinpointed, too. Also, the ebird reviewers help with their comments on the discussion list, and people create hotspots for a new rare bird so sightings can be grouped in the exact place. Just a thought, but I think ebird does great for data gathering when the birding community embraces it and really uses it, as here.
    Patricia Wood

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